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Base Logic Part One: Introductions

November 23, 2010 | by  |  Features

Over the course of three months The Dependent earned the trust of a small group of drug dealers operating on the Downtown Eastside. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the alleys and on the corners, we conducted interviews with those involved and observed the Hastings drug trade from the unique perspective of the street.

First in a four part series.

FROM A BENCH at the corner of Carrall and Hastings I watch as the street dealers ply their trade. Standing in clusters, they’re easy to pick out: Hooded sweatshirts and neck tattoos. Hats with flat brims and holograms indicating authenticity still inside. They lean against buildings and parking meters, one leg up and bent at the knee – stones in a stream of sunken faces and shuffling feet.

I warily approach four men at an alley entrance. Their necks are thick and they wear Nike runners, sweatpants, and graphic print tees. We exchange nods and I launch into my well-worn spiel:

I’m writing a story about the street-level drug trade. I’m not trying to fuck with anybody; I just want to understand it from the perspective of the dealers.

This is the tense part. I’ve canvassed these streets for over three weeks and I’ve yet to encounter anyone willing to talk. The responses range from feigning hearing loss to outright hostility.

There are certainly less nervy ways to write this story: an interview with the VPD, a chat with a director at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, an appointment with the friendly folks at InSite. It would be an account of addiction, gangs, violence, and exploitation. It would be an accurate portrait of the Hastings drug trade, but it would be absent the elusive voices of those most involved, and my aim – for good or ill – is to write it in the words of the dealers themselves.

They scrutinize the business cards, pondering my proposition.

Our time’s a hundred bucks an hour, the big man says, and they all laugh.

I’m not allowed to pay.

Well, I’m not allowed to talk.

Just as I’m about to accept this as another defeat, a cop car wheels into the alley behind us, window down. The driver bids a sarcastic hello and calls over a young dealer by name, demanding his driver’s license. Scanning the remaining faces, the cop then raises a finger and unwittingly propels me into the world of the Hastings drug trade.

Did you know you’re associating with the biggest drug dealers in the Downtown East Side? he asks. The group laughs and the cop shoots them a dirty look.

They’ve wondered at my recent presence down here. A business card, coupled with the computer’s output, satisfies their curiosity. They note that the young dealer is “moving up in the world” and implore me to be careful, then disappear down the alley.

They do that to you whenever they want? I ask as we walk back to the group.

Yep.

How many times a day?

Couple.

And they know everything?

Yep.

But they can’t do anything…

Nope.

THE YOUNG DEALER melts back into the circle, which has grown by two in the familiar uniform. I linger tentatively, waiting for a break in conversation, feeling the police have provided me an unlikely in: for a moment I was treated like a dealer, and the officer’s plain talk has eliminated the need for the group to deny their purpose on these streets.

Do you mind if I hang out for a bit? I ask.

All eyes defer the question to the big man I’ll call Royal. He nods thoughtfully, hands in the pockets of a black graphic print track suit.

All right, he says, his speech slow and careless and exuding a quiet authority. What did they ask you?

About what I was doing. For a moment I felt like one of the gang.

We’re not a gang, Royal corrects me, utterly humourless. They think we are, but we’re not.

The conversation resumes and every couple of minutes a man on a bike with sunken cheeks and an ill-fitting helmet appears. Circling us, he reports on the movements of people and police. He informs us that two officers are coming down the alley and as we walk down Cordova another guy on a bike calls out to us: Six up. Four on foot, and he motions back the way we came.

I walk silently, struggling to formulate useful but innocuous questions.

How can the cops know what you do but not bust you? I ask a short, stocky dealer beside me.

They don’t know everything, Royal interjects. They think they do, but they don’t.

They know the whole game, counters the dealer, but it’s about evidence. I don’t do anything to incriminate myself. I don’t ever touch money, I don’t ever hold anything and I don’t ever send people to the workers. Well, if I do, I do it discreetly. His eyes are bright and sharp but he never meets my gaze. It’s about evidence, he continues. They build a picture of you and they collect all this evidence against you and once they’ve got something big, they bring it all together and bring a case against you.

Are you ever scared out here? I ask him.

Only when they come deep at me.

Like, tires screeching and lights blazing and that?

No, like when they just come walking over and straight up to me. I wonder if they’ve got enough evidence to put me away, but then I think, ‘no’. That’s the only thing that gets my adrenaline pumping.

We wander back to the alley entrance. Leaning against telephone poles and parking barriers, the conversation turns to girls. Cars. Steroids. Money. The mood is remarkably relaxed.

The circle expands and contracts with dealers, messengers, and addicts. Despite standing in their midst for hours I never see drugs or money.

Downtown Eastside Graffiti

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

ROYAL WANDERS AWAY from the group and over to the benches. He moves slowly, hands in his pockets, barely checking for traffic. A younger dealer with dark skin and a wide grin goes with him, baggy sweatsuit concealing his thin frame. I follow.

Specific questions have so far been met with uncomfortable silence, so I keep things generic, hoping for breadcrumbs of truth. In a roundabout way I ask about the territories, the regular faces on the regular corners I’ve come to know over the weeks, the ethnic divides from block to block.

What about those Spanish guys? I say.

What about ‘em? asks Grin.

What’s their deal? They won’t talk to me.

He thinks about it for a moment.

They work out front, he says, motioning to Hastings, and we work out back. He nods to the alley beside us.

What if you went out front, what would happen?

Nothing, Royal says. Depends who you know. His big hands are like meat cleavers resting at his waist.

What if they came out back? I ask.

If they just came working one day out back it wouldn’t be a problem. But if they did it like, a couple days in a row we might ask what’s up, you know?

I didn’t.

They got their own way and we got ours, Grin explains. They got their Spanish style. They’ll sit out there with their guy, like just ten feet away and watch him the whole time. We let our guys go wherever and we just meet up later, you know?

So you guys don’t actually sell drugs?

He shakes his head.

So what do you do then? is what I want to ask, but I know it will be greeted with silence.

How much do you pay your guy?

If I make $100 I’ll give him $10, say, but that’s just an example.

So, ten percent?

That’s just an example.

And how much do you make in a day?

He hesitates. $500, he says finally. Anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

But it used to be way more, says Royal.

Why’s that?

The recession. Plus, that’s before they shipped all the addicts out of town or sent them to jail for the Olympics. You used to be able to make like $3,000 a day.

A cloud of marijuana smoke wafts over from a nearby bench.

Do you guys smoke weed out here? I ask.

I do at home, but I try to stay away from illegal activities when I’m here, Grin says. They bust you for anything. Smoking too close to the building. Jaywalking. Not wearing a helmet. They give you like a $250 fine, he says.

They tell us, we gotta tax you somehow.

The conversation cools and in the silence I grow uncomfortable. Rather than wear out my welcome I ask if I can come back tomorrow.

Sure, Royal says, to my surprise. When’s your article coming out?

I’ll probably research it for a couple of months.

I reach out to shake Grin’s hand but he extends his fist instead.

Around here we do it like this, he says with his wide smile, and I bump knuckles with the both of them and wander giddy into the street.

The next two months will be interesting, to say the least.

Read Part Two.

Downtown Eastside Alley

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

Matt Chambers is the editor and publisher of The Dependent Magazine. He's in way over his head.

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12 Comments


  1. This just happens right behind my Apartment.

    TO be honest, I think these guys are all pretty nice and have never felt intimidated or anything by them.

    Great article and its fun to read about “the wire” of Vancouver.

    If you go out there again, I would love to know what there thoughts on legalizing drugs are… if they are for or against it and if it were to happen if they would try to stay in the drug business or if they would have to get other jobs and if so what they would do?

  2. Awesome, I will definitely be following the rest of this. A lot of these guys are legacy in Vancouver, and have been dealing all their lives. It’s probably all H.A. run, but you should really try and get an interview with some of the older guys that aren’t on the street anymore.

    I bet they would have some great opinions and insight, as well as some amazing stories.

  3. I too would love to hear their take on legalization, and also any group affiliation. He said they’re not a gang, why not? Why do they stick together? Ethnic reasons? Do they know each other?

  4. I’ve interviewed over two hundred addicts. Mostly from the DTES. not one believes in legalization. Not one believes in InSite. Not one doesn’t think about their sobriety every day.

    But they did offer a collective thought on dealers from the DTES: They are lying douchebags whom are entirely incapable of telling the truth or providing much perspective since they often consume the remains of the day and are more than content to say anything to perpetuate their spot atop the downtrodden.

    The fancy jeans and ‘Affliction’ shirts aren’t what tell the real story. It’s the ethos of knowing that with every kibble, you’re killing somebody, albeit slowly.

    And they don’t care.

    Hopefully, Mr. Chambers, your series will be better written and less contrived than the hatchet job you did on me not long ago.

    If you want legitimacy, you fire when necessary or when fired upon.

    Then again, if you are truly “dependent” then the question must be asked: On what? Of whom?

    Good luck. It took me six years to earn the trust of the biggest players on the DTES. Small time “dime-baggers” will only show you a sliver of the bigger problem: We’ve been spending ONE MILLION per day for several years on the DTES and NOTHING has improved. It’s only gotten worse.

    With all the povertarians and grief pimps bellying up to the trough, nothing will improve until the govt shuts them down and forces people into rehab and mental health facilities.

    If your conclusions fall outside, or more accurately offside, of that, then you’ve simply provided your readers with some nice anecdotes about minor players in the DTES drug trade that will forever feed off the poor and addicted.

  5. I love your perspective, Tsakumis: if you don’t present the story in accordance with my political beliefs, you are a hack.

    Frankly, I don’t give a shit about what you want people to believe about the opinions of addicts. Your account certainly doesn’t seem believable to me.

    Perhaps what you’ve failed to notice in your blatant, childish attack on Mr. Chambers is that this story is not about addicts’ opinions on legalization, forced rehab, or the entrenched social service interests on the DTES. Anyone who read this story would realize it is about the logistics of the street level drug. It is something that few people who like to wax philosophical about the DTES understand.

    You’ve embarrassed yourself yet again. Grow up.

  6. I have been waiting for this and was going to ask what happened. I believe you have captured what you were looking for and presented it well for part one.

    I am now addicted.

  7. Excellent work, Matt. I’ll be waiting for the next installment!

  8. I used to live on the Downtown East Side, brings back fond memories believe it or not, of a sort.

  9. Hey sounds like an interesting project. Can u ask about their families? What they were like as children? People can open up alot when u hit home or talk about your life and share your own stories…. I love people and always feel comfortable talking to others bout this stuff and have heard some incredible tales and its powerful to be the listener as ell as the story teller.. bless

  10. Matt,

    This is interesting, and I would say very ballsy of you to go out and do your research as such for the story. I’ve only read part one as of yet and my opinion hangs somewhere in between what Tsakumis said and what Williams rebutted.
    Maybe there’s a middle ground to scratch the surface of?

    Cheers.

  11. Michael H Anderson

    Always good to get that uniquely *Vancouver* perspective: that dealers are really very interesting individuals who are being hassled by cops for no discernible reason, that violent parasitic scum are of value for something more than target practice.

    FUCK anyone who believes this; until you or someone you love has had the chance for a happy life completely torn away forever by addiction, SHUT THE FUCK UP and keep your stupid zombie imbecile opinions to yourself. Your opinions are SHIT and have nothing to do with reality.

  12. This is why I love online comments: they’re always so insightful and well-reasoned.

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